Given the serious nature of this film and his whole-hearted agreement with its politics, on this occasion Judge Russell Engebretson will recuse himself from cracking wise.
As numerous trial witnesses air bracing arguments against the global economic machinery that haunts them, life in the courtyard presses forward.
Bamako, a near-future drama set in the West African country of Mali, critiques the World Bank incisively yet falls somewhat short in the story department.
Facts of the Case
Sometime in the not-so-distant future, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) are put on trial in Bamako, Mali for their numerous economic crimes against countries of the Southern hemisphere. The tribunal scenes, which comprise most of the movie, take place in the actual courtyard in Bamako where director Abderrahmane Sissako lived as a young boy. One of the witness's stories is set in the Saharan desert, but otherwise most events unfurl in the courtyard and the area immediately surrounding it.
The large cast of characters includes several real-life lawyers as well as Malians in the parts of judges, lawyers, witnesses, and local citizens. Co-producer Danny Glover has a brief appearance in a film-within-the-film segment, but most of the actors are unknowns, all of which adds an air of documentary authenticity to much of the movie.
The film shines brightest when it strips away the economic jargon of the IMF and reveals the suffering of African citizens created by an organization based in Washington which serves the desires of multinational corporations in the Northern hemisphere.
Bamako does an excellent job of explaining the dire economic situation in Africa, which is due in large part to the policies of the IMF and World Bank. The debate between lawyers and the testimony of average African citizens illuminates their horrific reality in an up-close and personal way that is difficult to dismiss as mere polemic. The stories beyond the courtyard—families torn apart by job loss, untreated illnesses, and government corruption—strongly enforce the political message of corporate malfeasance.
The IMF standard procedure is to plunge a country deep into debt by way of enormous, high interest rate loans, followed by demands that public infrastructure be "privatized" with so-called structural readjustment programs—eventually to be sold off wholesale to Western corporations. Massive exportation of produce, grain, oil, and raw mineral wealth to the West quickly follows.
When the subsistence agrarian society is sufficiently ravaged, the mass of farmers flock to the cities seeking employment to avoid starvation. The overabundance of potential workers drives wages down to almost nothing and supplies predatory businesses with a huge pool of disposable employees to continue the extraction and exportation of the country's resources. It's a slick plan that has worked for decades in Africa, South America, and many other "pre-industrial" countries; but it all begins to unravel when the affected countries can no longer pay the debt and peasants are figuratively or literally storming the palace.
Bamako is long on impassioned intellectual argument but short on story. A loose collection of character vignettes does not make for an especially compelling human drama, even though the character's tales individually are emotionally moving. Undoubtedly the tapestry of rural village life reinforces the film's political message, but it hangs together rather loosely and ultimately seems overshadowed by the courtyard trial.
The naturalistic cinematography is often striking, particularly the pre-dawn and twilight shots that frame the movie. The camera captures the vitality of village life—women dying clothes as the red dye soaks into the dirt, a large white goat menacing a black-robed lawyer—but also lingers on ordinary domestic scenes such as a sick child being comforted; or a long, contemplative shot of a troubled couples' marriage portrait hanging on a shadowy, maroon painted wall.
The anamorphic DVD does justice to the cinematography with a workmanlike transfer. Some detail is lost in the shadows, and occasionally daytime scenes are overly bright and washed out, although most of those shots seem to be intentionally over or under exposed for effect. The dialogue is crisp, and the ambient background sounds are just at the right level to be clear without becoming intrusive.
The extras include an interview with Yao Graham (Coordinator, Third World Network Africa) that further explains the liberalization policies of the IMF and World Bank. Also included is a frank 35 minute interview with director Sissako in which he talks about the film, his childhood, and his cinematic influences. The DVD keepcase contains a twelve-page glossy booklet with interviews from actors who played the lawyers, and additional written commentary on the IMF. All in all, a solid set of extras.
As for what type of audience this film will appeal to, I can only say that if you believe a twice democratically elected popular leader is a dictator (Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez), that Fox news is fair and balanced, or that the IMF is only extending a helping hand to the third world, Bamako will not likely ring your bell. For most other folks, it is absolutely worth a rental.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Yorker Films
• Harry Belafonte New York Film Festival panel
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